A team of scientists led by a Brown professor is conducting research that could lead to the regeneration of injured nerve cells and renewed feeling in numb, damaged body parts.
Headed by Associate Professor of Medical Science and Engineering Diane Hoffman-Kim, the study has the potential to change the understanding that, unlike other cells in the body, nerve cells do not regenerate and can remain damaged for the rest of one's lifetime. The research consists of multiple projects and is modeled after a "more complicated approach" from a biomedical engineering perspective, Hoffman-Kim said.
Unlike many biomedical research approaches, there has been no animal testing or clinical trials, as much of the work is done "in a dish," she added.
In encouraging the regeneration of injured nerve cells, the mechanisms of normal development are "recapitulated," she said, adding that this is possible with greater technology and the more "comprehensive and robust understanding" scientists now have of cell mechanisms and cell biology.
The team has made artificial materials that look just like Schwann cells — brain cells that aid transmission of neural signals by wrapping around neurons. Hoffman-Kim said she could not tell the difference between the artificial and real Schwann cells — and neither could the nerve cells.
She said when she researched tissue regeneration as a graduate student, she and colleagues were "doomed" to fail because of the lack of knowledge in the area.
The other members of Hoffman-Kim's research group include Julie Richardson '07 GS, Cristina Lopez-Fagundo GS, Jennifer Mitchel GS, Yu-Ting Liu '06 GS, Talisha Ramchal '11, Cameron Rementer '10 and a senior research assistant, Liane Livi.
The research group is very interdisciplinary, Hoffman-Kim said, with members from such diverse backgrounds as molecular biology, mathematics and biotechnology.
Rementer and Richardson previously held Undergraduate Teaching and Research Assistantships working with Hoffman-Kim. The "value of the UTRA program" needs to be stressed, Hoffman-Kim said. Brown is a "great place to have smart people work together."
According to Hoffman-Kim, Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Edward Wing summarized the goal of the researchers quite well. "You wanted to get Superman to walk again," she said he told her.
"We really want to understand how things work," she added.
Mitchel and Richardson expressed similar goals. "Basic understanding" eventually translates into helping people, Mitchel said. "Not tomorrow," but maybe in "10 years," she added. "Things happen slowly."